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Ghost of the Tight Man: What Happened to Sam Davis

Sam Davis once was the glue that held the super Steelers together. But a promising career after football was cut short by an unexplained fall that robbed him of the life he knew.



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photos courtesy of the pittsburgh steelers

 

The broad smile that was his signature is seen only in the shadows of Sam Davis’ private world now.

When the Pittsburgh Steelers were at the apex of their 1970s glory, when they were the mightiest assemblage of football talent in the history of the game, they were held together by Davis, the one they called Tight Man, the nickname given him for his role in keeping the team close. Tight Man befriended rookies, teased fellow veterans and flashed that smile.

But history, or some crueler force, left him behind.

In the circular, plastic confines of Three Rivers Stadium, Davis once was celebrated, starting 10 seasons alongside left tackle Jon Kolb for the only franchise in National Football League history to win back-to-back Super Bowls twice. He blocked for Terry Bradshaw in 1972 when the Blonde Bomber launched the throw for what came to be known as the Immaculate Reception, the miracle play that beat the Oakland Raiders in the Steelers’ first playoff game. He appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1976, escorting Rocky Bleier on a run in the snow in Cincinnati.
 
In Super Bowl XIII against the Dallas Cowboys, in what some observers consider the greatest collection of players to compete in a single NFL contest, Davis manhandled the Manster, Randy White, who was the big game’s co-most valuable player a year earlier.

Serious fans know that the offensive captain of those great Steelers teams was not Bradshaw, not running back Franco Harris, nor even center Mike Webster, all of them Hall of Famers.
 
It was Davis, the one who reminded young linemen to study their playbooks and offered to help when the schemes seemed too complicated.

“Sam was a great football player and an even better man,” says Craig Wolfley, who replaced Davis on the Steelers line. “He epitomized what it means to be a Steeler.”

A 6-foot-1, 255-pound trapping machine, Davis was one of many discoveries of legendary scout Bill Nunn, who turned finding talent at obscure black colleges into the marrow of a dynasty. Davis not only could move, he had a trait Coach Chuck Noll valued almost as much: smarts. Davis parlayed that into an offseason job in sales at Heinz, which prompted him to don No. 57 on Sundays. He became a proven performer on the field and off, seizing the starting job at left guard in Noll’s second season and ascending at the iconic company known best for its ketchup.

Few Steelers from those days appeared more set than Davis for what Noll referred to as “their life’s work,” meaning careers after football. Davis was a relentless entrepreneur, constantly conjuring up and pursuing new ideas. He started a construction business and other ventures. He dazzled clients and prospects with his trademark smile, good humor and love of people. He looked the part of one on his way to greater success, driving his shiny black Mercedes, clad in pinstripe three-piece suits and brandishing one of those four gleaming Super Bowl rings.

But somewhere in Davis’ world, in a place many of those closest to him never noticed, a storm was building. It was powerful enough to snatch it all away, to take from the man not his existence but the very man himself, to leave only a faint outline — with the rest ripped from his memory like pages torn from a book.

Three of his Super Steelers linemates — Mike Webster, Ray Mansfield and Jim Clack — are dead. So, too, are three of the four members of the Steel Curtain — L.C. Greenwood, Ernie Holmes and Dwight White — who lined up opposite him in practice. Davis survived them all but was gone before them.

The man his teammates knew vanished 27 years ago, on a weekend in September.

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